Guest author Francesc Bellaubi is a senior researcher at South Urals State University and is currently collaborating with the chair of environmental ethics from the University of Alcalá de Henares, Spain. He has a background in environmental geology and engineering and experience in providing technical assistance to development agencies, NGOs, research institutes, and civil organizations, with special support towards fair management and governance of environments and natural resources. In this post, he diverges from the technical side of nurturing positive interactions with nature, and introduces us to a sacred place threatened by destructive human activity that has inspired his more recent philosophical work on spiritual human-nature relations. He reflects on how the photographic image could bring us to engage critically with a spiritual dimension, and how the act of taking and viewing photographs within this context can foster attitudes of respect to fellow humans and nature that could inspire spiritual eco-resistance.
*The above featured image shows a view of Lake Turgoyak from Miass city in the Chelyabinsk Oblast, Russia. The lake is 60 million years old. Photo: A. Baygusheva, used here with kind permission.
Turgoyak is a small lake at the foot of the Southern Urals: a sacred, megalithic, ancient place and a site of pilgrimage for the Old Orthodox Believers, descendants of the Eastern Russian Orthodox Church. The smaller brother of Lake Baikal, Turgoyak is fed by the River Miass. It is the home of Russian mining colonies, witness to a Soviet missile factory, a forgotten lake for local hunters, and a tourist destination for Muscovites—a fantasy Tarkovsky-film location in which the past and present talk and people are just actors amongst the scenery. The lake cries slowly and quietly and the city close by is, every summer, engulfed by the surrounding forest. The elders walk around and the kids play in abandoned gardens.
In the eighteenth century, the region around Lake Turgoyak in the Chelyabinsk region was heavily colonized by Russian miners as part of geopolitical ambitions to extend and secure the fragile historical borders of the Russian Empire beyond the Ural Mountains. The region, rich in precious minerals such as gold, quickly turned into a flourishing mining center. The newcomers came into contact with the native Turkic Bashkir tribes, who had a deep spiritual awareness of nature. Indeed, the people of these tribes considered Lake Turgoyak as both sacred and forbidden. On Vera Island, located on the east side of the lake, there are megalithic structures dating back to the Stone Age (Photo 3), and an Orthodox monastery established in the nineteenth century, which is still a place of pilgrimage for Old Believers.
Nowadays, around 3.5 million tourists visit the Lake annually, mainly during the three months of the summer season. The touristic infrastructure is poor: the roads are narrow, there are no parking places, and some camps experience problems with sewage and organized garbage disposal. The land and waters of the public beach are heavily polluted and the tourists’ behavior often leaves much to be desired. Organizations and private citizens undertake the construction of resorts and holiday homes near the lake and its surroundings, building high fences that unbalance the ecosystem.
Both the local authorities and grass roots environmental groups are trying to solve the environmental problems affecting Turgoyak. In 2007, in accordance with the Russian Federal Law on “Specially Protected Natural Territories” and the Law of the Chelyabinsk Region, the lake was declared a nature monument. The directives accompanying this new status stipulated that public access to the lake does not include the use of boats or other kinds of transport with a combustion engine on the waters, and bans wood cutting, among other activities damaging to the ecosystems. But in reality, these regulations do not work. The members of the environmental NGO “Save Turgoyak” continually witness infringements and inform the local, regional, and even federal authorities; this information is then published by “Save Turgoyak” on social media, but generally to little effect. This situation can be explained by lack of transparency and accountability in applying sanctions, overlapping powers of legislation, and the fact that the lake’s environmental protection involves conflicts between the municipal authorities and the federal forestry agency. So even knowing about the problems, the authorities cannot solve them.
Considering the contemporary social context in Russia, environmental movements are a type of social protest against the insufficient action of the government in solving ecological problems. Activism expressed through photography is a politically contested manifestation of conscious ecological resistance and struggle. Those who enact ecological resistance are carrying part of nature’s burden and exercising a consciousness of our inherent connectedness to nature and our own actions, past, present, and future.
Photography can be a most powerful tool in inspiring emotional responses—photographic images of people and nature can evoke strong feelings that foster positive social and environmental awareness and even spirituality. Photography may therefore play a critical role in igniting our awareness of nature, providing a potential eco-advocacy tool. I propose that underneath the process by which we are moved to awareness or action by photographs, there is a spiritual dimension, which lies in photography’s capacity to represent actors from the past, reveal a historical substrate—to use the term of Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, to tell the “intra-story” of history. Exploring the past through images can provide a background for narratives of human relations with nature in the present and towards the future. In that way, photography can become an internal and silent exercise of evoking and awakening spiritual feelings, which, by connecting us to past generations, our ancestors, and our environments, can move us to foster a desire to nurture our surroundings as a whole. Through connection and empathy, by applying the same values to nature that we do other humans and society, we can demonstrate something echoing the principal of solidarity.
Knowledge is not only set in our physical brain and mind structures but transcends into the spiritual perception that shapes our daily behavior. Behavior is not based on rational-bound knowledge but on moral values, beliefs, and natural instincts that determine the why of our actions.
Lake Turgoyak, where the voices of ancestors lie, is not a sacred entity per se, but a manifestation of the sacred. In the same way that myths and sacred scriptures transport and catalyze the breakthroughs of the sacred into the world (what is known as hierophany), so too can the photographic image carry such spiritual awakenings. Photographs of special places like Lake Turgoyak become protracted “icons” that put us in contact with a sacred human-nature constellation, with the divine, with the Creator (whatever one’s interpretation of this is). In this sense, it is possible to consider the photographer—as the one taking the picture, observing a reality and a possibility (the hierophany)—as participating in a spiritual act through a “photographic” liturgy, like that between the priest and a believer; a pedagogic liturgy, to inspire respect for our ancestors, ourselves, and for nature.